According to figures collected by the Competition Authority, Israel is the Facebook nation. More than 90 percent of Israelis use Facebook’s WhatsApp more than twice a day, 85 percent use Facebook itself and 76 percent use Instagram. The U.S. social media company has unprecedented control over Israelis’ daily lives and unprecedented power to shape their consciousness. Every post – including posts that deny the coronavirus, incite or increase polarization between different segments of society – can potentially have enormous influence.
Given this data, it’s utterly bizarre that Facebook isn’t subject to any regulations. Therefore, Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel’s decision to form a committee to examine social media companies’ responsibility for the content posted on them and look into how they treat their users is necessary and welcome.
The committee will be comprised of experts in law and technology. Among other questions, they will have to answer a crucial one, namely, are social networks media outlets? If so, they should have certain obligations, above all the duty to be held to account for the content posted on them. It’s important to remember that no local media outlet – whether television stations, radio stations, newspapers or online news sites – can publish content without thoroughly checking the facts and considering the effects of publishing it.
Hendel’s effort isn’t unique to Israel; similar legislation is already being advanced elsewhere in the world. The need for it has been sharpened by the spread of a culture of fake news on issues that sometimes cause psychological and health damage. Moreover, reports of harmful content are currently examined by anonymous people. Nobody understands why some posts are taken down while others remain up.
The Communications Ministry stressed that it doesn’t intend to impose censorship on either Facebook or its users; it merely seeks to narrow the gap between the platform’s enormous power, on one hand, and its lack of transparency and inadequate ethical filters, on the other.
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Facebook is a company that refuses to reveal its decision-making process on content removal, the way its algorithms work or the considerations used in adjusting content to individual users. A situation in which a single large company dictates the agenda with no transparency, legal responsibility or solutions to problems the social network itself creates for its users is intolerable.
We can only hope Hendel insists that the committee seriously and courageously address these issues and demands that its recommendations be implemented, despite the heavy pressure that can be expected from the company and its lobbyists. The government must not infringe on Israelis’ freedom of expression, but at the same time, it must ensure that their rights aren’t trampled into the dust by an aggressive corporation.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.